Many people respect the views of the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) on the state of the climate – at least roughly half of the global population perceives global warming as a threat. Most of them whole-heartedly acknowledge that we need to take action to mitigate climate change. The odd thing is, though, that a great many seem to ignore a significant portion of what the IPCC is saying when it comes to climate solutions.
Among the people passionately dedicated to climate action, there are many calls for changes of lifestyle, limitation of consumerism, end of capitalism, moving away from fossil fuels, and a strong support for renewable energy technologies. The latter two arguments, for sure – moving away from fossil fuels and investing on renewable energy – are indeed in line with IPCC’s proposed energy solutions. Whether changes in lifestyle – a dramatic shift where societies would rely on markedly lower levels of energy and fewer resources – is as fundamental for climate mitigation is a more complex issue. There are questions about the realism implementing such a change, as well as the effects it would have on human health and welfare, or the alleviation of poverty and improvement of living conditions in developing countries. The third world is working to bring their population up to the standards of the western world. Energy is direly needed to fight poverty and help create societies better adapted to the coordination and effort needed to deal with climate change, among other topics.
There is another factor apart to those mentioned above which is shunned by great many environmentalists, although clearly supported by the IPCC: using nuclear power to mitigate climate change.
I used to be vaguely against nuclear power, personally, mainly out of fear of Chernobyl and nuclear power’s radioactive aura of danger. What for me originally was influential in seeing nuclear power in a more nuanced way was the case of a close friend, such a staunch anti-nuclear activist herself, that she decided to continue the fight by completing a degree in radiochemistry. By the time she finished her studies she had quite reversed her outlook. So later on, when I started reading headlines of scientists speaking in support of nuclear power, I had the fortunate position of viewing them in neutral light. Otherwise I might have well been down in the trenches, calling an end to nuclear.
Not all environmentalists disagree with IPCC and protest against nuclear power, to be clear. A famous environmentalist figure, Mark Lynas, has published a book on the topic and writes in The Guardian in 2012 with the title Without nuclear, the battle against global warming is as good as lost. A more recent example is a group of research biologists in the UK who want to help de-stigmatise nuclear power for environmental reasons.
By convincing leading scientists in the areas of ecological sustainability that nuclear has a role to play, we hope that others opposed to nuclear energy on purely ‘environmental’ – or ideological – grounds might reconsider their positions.
This divide among the important driving forces behind climate mitigation, though, is dangerous – it threatens to cripple climate action. Energy supply is a large part of the green house gas equation. Quoting Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), Maria van der Hoeven:
Energy accounts for two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions and as such its role is central in tackling climate change.
Despite what many climate action groups advocate, energy experts reviewing the potentials of all technologies don’t see a realistic possibility for a rapid shift into 100% renewable energy. The majority of scientists and engineers, as represented by the IPCC and IEA, acknowledge that it is not possible on this timescale or level of technology. Others have pointed out the same thing, here, here, here, and here, for instance. The important fact is that right now we need both, renewables and nuclear.
In 2014 IPCC report presented their review on the mitigation potentials of energy supply (they’ve changed their web content, archived report here), and its scenarios have a mix of renewables and nuclear replacing fossil fuels – roughly 3/5 by renewable technologies and 2/5 by nuclear power (old graph on page 304, archived reports show reuired nuclear increases on page 132, or in summary paper page 14). They also say:
No single technological option has sufficient mitigation potential to meet the economic potential of the electricity generation sector.
Again: renewables and nuclear are both needed. In fact, in many discussions it seems that renewables and nuclear are in collision course. It’s either or – except it isn’t. They are *both* carbon neutral sources that can and should help us reduce our dependance on fossil fuels. Renewables and nuclear should be friends.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) is an autonomous organisation reviewing energy questions that works with a broad range of groups, committees and advisory bodies. They have several scenarios for the future of energy production in light of climate change mitigation, and they all include increase in nuclear power as well as renewables. Their most optimistic possibility for harnessing renewables puts them at 31% share of total energy supply (graph on page 27).
The book Climate Gamble makes an illuminating graphic presentation of these estimates, showing global potential of renewables side by side with the IPCC scenarios for world energy demand in a featured weekly graph shared from the book on their blog.
To achieve the goal of limiting global temperature increases to just 2 degrees Celsius (°C) by the end of the century, a halving of global energy-related emissions by 2050 will be needed. A wide range of low-carbon energy technologies will be needed to support this transition, including nuclear energy.
[…] global capacity must more than double, with nuclear supplying 17% of global electricity generation in 2050, to meet the IEA 2 Degree Scenario (2DS) for the most effective and efficient means of limiting global temperature rise to the internationally agreed maximum.
Many people are afraid of nuclear power. The technology appears more threatening than other energy sources. If you really start looking at the data, though, you understand that there are no energy sources without environmental harm or risk for human health. Renewables have drawbacks too, and fossil fuels most definitely do. Nuclear power may even be among the safer choices among them. I argue that we should let science and data guide our actions, not the impression of threat.
Top US climate scientists writing in The Guardian are asking us to support the development of safer nuclear power in their open letter to environmentalists and world leaders, saying wind and solar power are not enough to diminish carbon emissions. The same plea has been put in words by Australian scientists writing for The Conversation: It’s time for environmentalists to give nuclear a fair go and UK scientists in Yale Environment 360: Why are environmentalists taking anti-science positions?
How can we truly know if nuclear power is a good option for the world energy needs? What is the way to objectively find out about its risks and benefits? How can we find reliable, unbiased information? It all comes down to science. This is a question where it is far too dangerous to ignore what science has to say. When scientists, expert organisations on technology like IEA, and panels on science, like IPCC, are all saying the same things, we should listen.
Two founding members of the Finnish Ecomodernist Association have written a book on the Climate Gamble of relying on renewables alone in the attempt to shift world’s energy production away from fossil fuels. This crowdsourced book will be distributed for free among all Paris COP21 meeting participants in December 2015 in the hopes of fostering that discussion.
Please consider that fighting the solution is part of the problem.